A public debate has erupted over a decision by Moreland council, in Melbourne’s inner-north, to install armrests on benches outside Coburg Library.
As a Socialist Alliance Moreland councillor I moved a motion to remove the armrests at the September 11 council meeting. In the end, council passed an amended motion to remove armrests from three of the five benches.
The issue of armrests on public benches could be seen as a trivial issue, but it is important because the benches outside Coburg Library are long and undercover and, as such, are often used by homeless people.
In the 2016 Census, Moreland recorded 771 homeless people sleeping on the streets, in cars, couchsurfing or living in uninhabitable or overcrowded situations.
For the first time ever, Moreland is being included in this year’s annual StreetCount program, which has been recording the big rise in numbers of people sleeping rough in Melbourne’s CBD.
Unlike the CBD, it used to be very rare to see rough sleepers in Coburg and other suburbs.
For some years, local councils, governments, businesses and developers have been designing public and private spaces to deter homeless people. The term “hostile architecture” has been used to describe this trend.
Examples of hostile architecture include armrests on benches, narrow or sloping benches, metal spikes or studs on floors, doorways and ledges, and water sprinklers that activate at night.
Last year, Brisbane City Council moved on a camp of homeless people from underneath a bridge and filled the area with large rocks to prevent them returning.
Seattle council, in the United States, was heavily criticised for its decision to install bike racks under a viaduct frequented by homeless people.
London and Montreal councils have also been criticised for installing studs and spikes on floors.
When Sydney’s Central Station was refurbished a few years ago, the seats where people often slept while waiting for late-night regional and interstate trains were replaced with benches with armrests.
Examples of hostile architecture are on the rise as the homelessness crisis worsens.
Some councils and businesses are responding to rising homelessness by viewing a reduction in the visibility of rough sleepers as a success, rather than tackling the issues causing people to sleep rough.
People are sleeping rough because of a lack of affordable housing, the extremely low rate of welfare payments, unemployment, family violence, trauma and other issues.
Instead of dealing with these issues, money is spent on hostile architecture.
But homeless people do not vanish when they are prevented from sleeping on benches — they simply move on to less visible, and potentially more unsafe, areas.
Community nurse Gabrielle Bennett told the council meeting: “Coburg has been seen as a safe and inclusive area. The new furniture with armrests prevents people from resting properly and lying down.”
It “symbolises that you are not welcome here and move on,” she said.
Community worker Pier Moro said: “Hostile architecture … is built to exclude people, and usually it excludes the less well off.
“The good thing about the seats outside Coburg Library is that they are under cover. It’s safe for them, and there are toilets nearby.
“The reality of people saying ‘I feel unsafe’ is that we are pushing homeless people to darker and more dangerous places where they will feel more unsafe.”
I want to see an inclusive community. You don’t build an inclusive community by pushing out people who are struggling.
We need to put resources into helping people not excluding them.